Most senior officer to die in Afghanistan volunteered for a mission to ”inspire” his men – inquest

April 30, 2010 | by | 0 Comments

The most senior officer to die in Afghanistan was killed by a roadside bomb after he volunteered for a treacherous mission to ”inspire” his men, an inquest heard.

Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, 39, took the place of another soldier because he wanted to demonstrate that he was prepared to undertake the most dangerous jobs.

He opted to provide ‘top cover’ on a Viking armoured vehicle as it negotiated a stretch of road which had recently been captured from the Taliban in Helmand Province.

But the vehicle hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and he died along with rookie Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, on July 1 last year.

The inquest heard how Lt Col Thorneloe, who commanded 1,000 troops in the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, wanted to ‘lead by example’ by putting himself in danger.

Major Andrew Speed, who was second in command of the battle group, said it was Thorneloe’s ”style of leadership” to get on the ground with his men on the front line.

He said: ”Like all good leaders Lt Col Thorneloe wanted to get on the ground.

”He wanted to put himself behind the front line so he could see how his troops feel. He was a hands-on sort of guy.

”He would want to see for himself what was happening – you can’t get situational awareness from listening to a radio.

”By showing his men that he was prepared to do what they were doing, they can only be inspired by that.”

The inquest heard Lt Col Thorneloe had sent a memo to top brass shortly before his death raising concerns about the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan.

But Maj Speed, his second in command, said this would not have prevented his death because helicopters would not have been used on the fatal mission in question.

He said he was aware that Lt Col Thorneloe, of Aldershot, Hampshire, had sent an email about the lack of helicopters.

”I was aware he had sent an email, I was not aware of its contents,” he told the inquest.

”He had his own mind. He was bright and intelligent and wanted to share his views with someone else outside Afghanistan.”

The Viking was at the head of a convoy taking supplies to a checkpoint from Patrol Base Shawqat near Lashka Gar.

Lt Col Thorneloe was in the rear of the vehicle with Trooper Hammond participating in an Op BARMA exercise – drilling into the road at suspicious points to identify IEDs and disable them.

Major Speed added: ”I specifically remember sitting down with him in the camp and him telling me that he was going to do the BARMA drill.

”He wanted to demonstrate to everyone that despite being a commanding officer he wanted to do what everything else was going to do.

”It was the best way to see the ground and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d been BARMA-ing.”

The narrow route ran alongside a canal through territory that had been taken from the Taliban by the British forces only days earlier.

It had already been patrolled that morning and no explosives had been found, but the convoy still stopped at one point and spent 90 minutes clearing 30m of the track for IEDs.

They carried on towards the checkpoint, which was in sight, with Lt Col Thorneloe sitting on top the Viking providing cover.

But the vehicle hit a concealed explosive in the road which detonated beneath the rear cab.

The explosion blew a hole two metres wide and two metres long in the road, and one metre deep.

Corporal Kevin Williams, who was commanding the lead Viking but survived the explosion, told the court how he rushed to tend to Lt Col Thorneloe and applied a tourniquet to his leg. But he slipped out of consciousness and died at the scene.

He then searched for Trooper Hammond, who he found in a crater beneath the rear of the vehicle – an area that had not been designated as a vulnerable point.

Trooper Hammond, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, showed no signs of life.

Cpl Williams told the inquest that Lt Col Thorneloe chose to take ‘top cover’ position in the rear of the Viking, despite the role being handed to another soldier.

Coroner David Ridley asked: ”Was it Lt Col Thorneloe’s decision to take top cover?”

Cpl Williams replied: ”Yes. There was originally top cover tasked, however he told the guy to get down and he would take his place.”

He said the IED was ”unusual” and that he believed ”the pressure pads may have been separate from the explosive” so as to detonate after a vehicle had passed over it.

Cpl Williams said the device may have been intended to target vehicles like Vikings, which at the time had been fitted with upgraded armour in the front of the vehicle, but not the rear.

”The front cab had had an armour upgrade but the rear cab had not,” he told the inquest. ”The rear has since been uparmoured.”

Cpl Williams added that he believed the decision to increase the armour on the rear of the Viking had been taken as a direct result of this incident.

The inquest continues.

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